GRYTVIKEN, South Georgia—
On her last day as intern-curator at the South Georgia Museum, Suzanne Paterson, a 30-year-old Scot who attends St. Andrew’s University, stands on a blighted beach as the cold wind picks up. The roughly 20 of us listening to her speech dig our hands into the pockets of our double-layered waterproof coats. “It’s beautiful here,” she says, as if speaking to her herself. “I’d stay longer if I could.”
The wreck of an old whaling vessel called the Petrel is beached behind her, its bow-mounted harpoon gun pointing at the small white church at the foot of the mountain in the distance; the church was barely used after it was built 101 years ago, and is completely abandoned now. Off to her left are the skeletal ruins of the Louise, the ship that brought the first whalers here from Norway in 1904.
Curator Susan Paterson takes passengers from the National Geographic Explorer on the last Grytviken tour of the season. Photo by Bert Archer.
Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, is a full five days’ sail northwest of here at 14 knots. South Georgia is an unforgiving place, and its museum—which preserves the memory of whalers who once lived here, the 175,250 whales who died here, and the final chapters in the life of one of history’s most celebrated explorers—is at the literal end of the Earth.
This December will mark the 100th anniversary since Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail from this very spot on his ship, the Endurance. Along with 22 men and 69 dogs, Shackleton was trying to cross Antarctica. He failed spectacularly. Though exploration of the southern continent continues today—much of it done by people stationed with Paterson in South Georgia—Shackleton was the last in the line of the great terrestrial explorers that began with the Vikings, men who set out into the genuine unknown to fill in the planet’s blank spaces.